Visual Arts - Child's play

Babies take charge in New Cry at Eyedrum

The paintings in New Cry feature babies — bodies contorted, sporting double pairs of arms and eerily suspended in some amniotic neverland — that only a mother could love. Judy Rushin's psychological and creepy paintings are filled with a complicated brew of wonder, darkness and fear that only a parent could render with so much humor.

Rushin's oil paintings are deliciously odd and at times genuinely unsettling. They are touched with a retro sensibility that reminds us of how narrow our views of baby can be. Adults engage in a purposeful imposition of their own ideas about children's innocence and spanking-clean perfection, which her paintings clearly intend to dismantle.

Rushin gives babies back their dignity, honoring their haughty adventurism and unflappable confidence as they perform acts of showbiz derring-do like scaling a skyscraper-tall ladder in preparation for a dive into a kiddie pool in "Daredevil." The artist revels in the anarchical will of the baby mind, which leaps toward new adventures and continually beguiles adult composure with its inventiveness and untapped mysteries.

These darkly nutty paintings — which have as much in common with artists Kim Dingle and Joe Coleman as religious icons, Soviet propaganda and Bruegel — use baby dolls, with limbs akimbo and clickety-clack eyelids, as stand-ins for the real thing, as if acknowledging the need for distance from scenes of such trauma and improbability.

Rushin favors a tongue-in-cheek vocabulary to title her paintings — "Raising Up Baby," Child's Play" and "Sibling Rivalry" — to undercut our cliched vision of childhood. In "Children's Theater," for instance, Rushin has something more than The Sound of Music on her mind as her Gorey-meets-Gein babies operate on a disturbed-looking man in goatee, already missing one limb.

Some of the work is flat-out hilarious like "Raising Up Baby" where a mesmerist with Bozo-pink hair levitates a squirming infant for an enthralled crowd. But nothing beats "Quake," where a defiant baby busts through Beatrix Potter-sweet wallpaper like one of the actors in The Purple Rose of Cairo stepping out of the movie fiction. Wearing a carrot bandolier-style across his chest and a hammer and sickle on his onesie, this wild-eyed kid shakes off the chains of nursery porridge and flannel. Such babies assert their will to be despite all efforts to tame, frill-ify and render precious these skinned-knee bandits.

Like Peter Pan or Pinocchio, Rushin's nursery tales are backstoried with tales of loss, abandonment and pluck as these moppets soldier on despite a lack of mother and father.

And the babies aren't the only ones floundering like the poor lost dolly in "Handless Maiden," who, with sad plugs of yellow doll hair and patches of bald pink skull visible underneath, contemplates a distant metaphysical landscape of trees and hillside. Parents have their woes, too, as in the sublimely lovely "Longing," done in vintage shades of Palm Beach coral and avocado, in which a daddy reading the funny pages glances up to contemplate two baby angels frolicking in his living room. These strange, magical creatures that take center stage in Rushin's work, such images suggest, are visitations from another world — evidence of the eternal and magical among us.

While chubby mothers in white corsets and fathers in recliners dwell in living rooms and lime green trailers, the babies wander through some existential Great Beyond, perhaps waiting for their parents or searching for a resting place, like the poor corpse-white "St. Mike" floating in space with an ominous umbilical-like tube sprouting from his neck. Rushin's babies float in a psychological amniotic fluid, neither here nor there, like creatures between terrestrial and celestial, souls waiting to be planted.

Rushin's technical skills can at times feel a little crude, and the wonderful pieces tend to point out the mediocrity of others, but this clever show devoted to these feral, beguiling creatures shines despite some flaws. Silly and scary, New Cry reckons with the vibrant personalities of these lives we have created but don't control.